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Phantom Authors Publish Real Research Paper

Unknown Lamer posted about a year ago | from the probably-nsa-sponsored-ghosts dept.

The Media 52

ananyo writes "Ghost writing is taking on an altogether different meaning in a mysterious case of alleged scientific fraud. The authors of a paper published in July, which reported significant findings in obesity research, seem to be phantoms. They are not only unknown at the institution listed on the paper, but no trace of them as researchers can be found. The paper, published in the Elsevier journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, is not the kind of prank that journals have encountered before, in which hoaxsters have submitted dummy papers to highlight weaknesses in the peer-review process. The paper's reported findings — that overexpression of two novel proteins in fat cells leads to improvements in metabolic processes related to diabetes and obesity in mice — are, in fact, true. Too true, in the opinion of Bruce Spiegelman, a cell biologist at Harvard Medical School's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He says that he has presented similar findings at about six research meetings, and is preparing to submit them to a journal. He suspects that the BBRC paper was intended as a spoiler of his own lab's work."

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get the noose, Harold (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44951195)

String every one of your grad students up!

Re:get the noose, Harold (5, Funny)

plover (150551) | about a year ago | (#44951337)

"Publish AND perish." What a novel approach!

Re:get the noose, Harold (1)

davester666 (731373) | about a year ago | (#44956977)

It is when you try to prevent your adviser from publishing your research under his name...

Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be know. (4, Insightful)

stewsters (1406737) | about a year ago | (#44951215)

Or there are some biologists out there working for a corporation that requires patents on all research. For some reason they don't agree with this. They are sticking it to the man by preempting their corporate master and posting anonymous coward.

Re:Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be kn (5, Informative)

Geoffrey.landis (926948) | about a year ago | (#44951341)

Or there are some biologists out there working for a corporation that requires patents on all research. For some reason they don't agree with this. They are sticking it to the man by preempting their corporate master and posting anonymous coward.

Apparently not. From the comments in the linked article [nature.com] :
"Spiegelman said patents weren't an issue here as he had filed patent applications on this before giving any presentations at scientific meetings on the findings (presenting something publicly before filing would itself invalidate patent applications)."

Re:Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be kn (1)

OneAhead (1495535) | about a year ago | (#44954451)

Sure, but did the hypothetical corporate researchers know about Spiegelman's results and patent at the time they submitted their paper? It's a competitive world...

... or a competitor (1)

oneiros27 (46144) | about a year ago | (#44951357)

I don't know the field, or the paper ... but supposedly this guy gave talks at other places.

*If* thhe said enough that would've let someone write this paper (ie, didn't require knowledge that he didn't aldeady leak), then I'd put the odds on some other company doing it, rather than a disgruntled employee.

Re:Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be kn (3, Funny)

gstoddart (321705) | about a year ago | (#44951441)

Nah, pissed off grad students and research assistants who weren't going to get any credit. :-P

Re:Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be kn (1)

NatasRevol (731260) | about a year ago | (#44951473)

Credit as in real $.

Re:Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be kn (4, Informative)

gstoddart (321705) | about a year ago | (#44951581)

Credit as in real $.

Or their names on the paper.

Re:Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be kn (1)

Minwee (522556) | about a year ago | (#44951797)

Credit as in real $.

These are grad students. The last time they saw real dollars they were paying them as tuition.

Re:Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be kn (3, Informative)

the biologist (1659443) | about a year ago | (#44953105)

Biology grad students get paid to get their degrees. They may not be paid well, but they are not paid badly either.

Re:Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be kn (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44956185)

Depends on your definition of badly, as $20-24k is livable, but kind of sucks compared to what you can get typically with a four year degree, especially if you are stuck in a lab that demands 60+ hour work weeks.

Re:Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be kn (1)

pepty (1976012) | about a year ago | (#44955447)

In that case they would have done it before the patents were submitted.

Re:Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be kn (1)

EmperorArthur (1113223) | about a year ago | (#44952227)

Nah, pissed off grad students and research assistants who weren't going to get any credit. :-P

Yeah, a lot of assistants don't even get mentioned in the paper. When they are, it's a small byline of with assistance with.... Many times it's not even on the abstract.

It's like working for a company where you know your boss is going to take all the credit for your hard work. It's perfectly legal and your boss might be a nice person, but it doesn't really encourage the underlings to care.

In this case, someone stole the researcher's thunder. The results are still valid and he might get some face time, but this will forever haunt his research on this particular topic.

Re:Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be kn (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44954129)

This discouragement of independent replication is just insane and needs to stop. Without replication the literature is not trustworthy.

Re:Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be kn (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44958001)

I know that is the stereotype of how professors are, but it seems like in experience that has actually been kind of rare. There is maybe one professor in a department who is kind of an ass, and it is usually well known, so grad students would only risk running into issues if they really wanted to work on that particular professor's projects. But most of the others seem very supportive of students, making sure the students get credit on papers, getting first author when appropriate. I've more than once hear something along the line of, "I have enough papers to my name, make sure the students are listed first." At the very lease, probably since at some point professors realize adding another paper to their name isn't going to advance their career after a while, but having their lab and students do well (and advancing to a good job afterwards) will be more important.

Re:Or it could be someone who doesnt want to be kn (1)

nmr_andrew (1997772) | about a year ago | (#44962025)

You know, most PIs do give their grad students, postdocs, RAs, and lab techs credit, except for those that are assholes. Not that there aren't a fair number of those, but I don't think they're in the majority. It costs a PI nothing for the most part to put several extra people as intermediate authors on a paper. The first and maybe second authors are understood to be those who did most of the work, the last author is usually the PI who's lab it was done in, and those in the middle generally contributed something. It's almost a bigger problem that too many authors wind up on papers.

If you're looking to have a great CV and apply for a PI position at a top tier university, middle author publications are worthless. If you're an RA, tech, or "staff" such as myself, it doesn't hurt to be in the middle as most reasonable people understand that you're unlikely to get many first author papers as you're technically in a support position.

That's one pissed-off grad student he has (or had) (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44951261)

Seriously, how angry do you suppose one of his current (or former) grad students is to have done something like this?

In order to be that accurate, it would have to be someone working pretty closely with Spiegelman. Strangely, it also implies said grad student is also extremely stupid at the same time - how do you publish something this specific in a journal and not expect Spiegelman to read it and call foul?

Re:That's one pissed-off grad student he has (or h (1)

Russ1642 (1087959) | about a year ago | (#44951509)

It could be another professor that hates his guts.

Re:That's one pissed-off grad student he has (or h (1)

QRDeNameland (873957) | about a year ago | (#44951661)

Or (if you read the linked Nature article) it could be due the rat that he "smelt".

I don't know if that means he beat the rat with a small fish or heated it to separate its metallic constituents, but either one would be a motive for rat revenge, I'd think.

Re:That's one pissed-off grad student he has (or h (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44951771)

Either way, the list of potential suspects is pretty small.

Re:That's one pissed-off grad student he has (or h (1)

sjames (1099) | about a year ago | (#44951655)

Perhaps not, they still have no idea who submitted it.

Re:That's one pissed-off grad student he has (or h (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44953339)

Maybe its the grad student who is actually doing the research and not getting the credit for it...

It might be his teenage son (0)

WillAffleckUW (858324) | about a year ago | (#44951265)

When my son was 8 he hacked Petopia, so it's a fairly simple thing for modern kids to take your drafts and contact lists and submit your work through some hacked accounts just to mess with Dad. Just have to leave the laptop on at home while you watch the game and ...

Trust. Then verify again, because we're all way too trusting.

So security is important after all? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44951269)

We told you so!

Lobachevsky? (2)

sehlat (180760) | about a year ago | (#44951299)

In Harvard Med my name is cursed! When he finds I published first!

Re:Lobachevsky? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44951667)

But when MetroGoldwynMoscow buys the movie rights for 6 million rubles, to whom will they send the check?

(Explanation) (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44952089)

Context: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQHaGhC7C2E

Who needs security? (1)

Russ1642 (1087959) | about a year ago | (#44951347)

Maybe having everyone share an account on the lab computer wasn't such a good idea after all.

Re:Who needs security? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44951645)

Perhaps it was a case of the collective consciousness striking again! Or even trans-dimensional information travel! OooOooo...

Well. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44951393)

Well, is the study reproducible?

I mean, if the science is accurate, then who gives a shit who submitted it?

Let's someone - a scientist - who's really humble and discovered something that will save human kind. Wouldn't they wan tot be anonymous and make it look legit?

Ahahahahahaha!

Humble! Oh god! I kill me!

It's a fake.

Re:Well. (4, Insightful)

mbkennel (97636) | about a year ago | (#44953427)


"I mean, if the science is accurate, then who gives a shit who submitted it?"

The guy who probably got the money for the project and thought of the experiment and whose continued employment and promotions depends on this research being published in his name in a top journal.

And his boss.

The Scientific Batman strikes agsin! (4, Funny)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about a year ago | (#44951433)

Probably some bored billionaire playboy who strikes down at the bad science epidemic at night by publishing reproducible results under his secret identity.

Re:The Scientific Batman strikes agsin! (1)

OzPeter (195038) | about a year ago | (#44951675)

Probably some bored billionaire playboy who strikes down at the bad science epidemic at night by publishing reproducible results under his secret identity.

Phooey. Hand in your Geek card.
 
  The author can be no other than Mr Walker* Just look for the "Good Mark" on the front of the paper. Old jungle sayings say that he is a dab hand with scientific research
 
* The Ghost Who walks

Loose lips sink ships (1)

domulys (1431537) | about a year ago | (#44951531)

The publication process in the biological sciences is very strange ... for some reason, people openly disclose their findings at conferences before submitting the relevant publications. Either you were first to publish or you weren't, and if you weren't, tough luck (not to discount the apparent fraud committed here).

It's must easier in computer science, since conference publications "count". Things can still get complicated (e.g., when one group submits to conference A while a similar paper was accepted - but not yet published - in conference B), but this is relatively rare, and most researchers would credit both groups with simultaneous discovery.

Re:Loose lips sink ships (1)

mbkennel (97636) | about a year ago | (#44953441)

"some reason, people openly disclose their findings at conferences before submitting the relevant publications. "

Because if they don't they can't justify the trip to the conference, and presenting the results is expected in order to get prestige and being well known in the community. If you're not well known and respected you don't get grant money.

Re:Loose lips sink ships (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44957669)

I think the difference is that journals tend to insist on some kind of minimum standard for writing before publication, and it takes a while to get a paper ready. It's then not so uncommon to go to conferences and seminars and present the work before writing is finished - this makes it easier to judge where one needs to explain carefully in the paper. I can't remember the last time I talked about a result I'd already submitted. CS conference papers, by contrast, are pretty universally horribly written. Typically you see an extended abstract with only half the technical details written in, prepared in the last hours before the conference deadline with several authors working on several sections simultaneously repeating the same bad explanations. And a promise that the full version will appear in a journal sometime which never actually happens because the next conference deadline is coming up, so that if you want to know details of any result you have to either wait till it gets in a textbook or ask all the authors till you find the one who remembers how the proof actually went. And sometimes no-one seems to know, and you cannot tell whether Lemma X was actually proved or if one of the authors thought it must be true and asked the others to check it, and then one of the others wrote it in in a hurry without ever checking.

Re:Loose lips sink ships (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44958133)

No this fake paper is fraud.

Also open discussion of results before publishing should be encouraged not discouraged.

The reason it is fraud, is that the people that wrote this paper do not have the data. And even if they do, they can't be contacted ever to try and have a look at it. What probably happened is that they saw a conference talk, from which they can get the basic methodology and results of the study. Being familiar with the field they worked backwards to fabricate the necessary data that fitted the results noted down from the talk, and wrote a fake paper around that.

They didn't do the experiments they said they did, they don't have the experiments and data to backup their claims. It is scientific fraud, unless the authors can prove otherwise. But as they don't exist that isn't possible.

This is good (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44952063)

I'm completely in favour of publishing all stuff with wrong authors, and even everybody publishing as anynomous.

It's the only way I can think of to save science from this immense ball of paper-obsession

Re:This is good (1)

OneAhead (1495535) | about a year ago | (#44954503)

It's the only way I can think of to save science from this immense ball of paper-obsession

Fo a scientist, you have a terrible lack of imagination. ;)

This is old news. (1)

VortexCortex (1117377) | about a year ago | (#44952071)

Douglas Adams "satirical" work predicted formation of PRISM (aka Deepthought) as well as "unseen forces" guiding the experiments themselves to program our scientific community with the required inputs.

You say "Phanoms", I say pandimensional projections appearing, to the untrained eye, not completely unlike a rodent.

Re:This is old news. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44952941)

Douglas Adams "satirical" work predicted formation of PRISM (aka Deepthought)

If you think Deepthought was at all similar to PRISM, then you should probably not smoke so much crack while reading those books.

BBRC is a joke. (1)

tronski (2878561) | about a year ago | (#44952129)

BBRC is a notoriously terrible journal with only a passing nod to the peer review process. It is well know in the biological sciences as a place to dump worthless research to pad your CV. I don't know of a scientist worth their salt who would trust a paper in this journal.

Re:BBRC is a joke. (1)

OneAhead (1495535) | about a year ago | (#44954511)

And that has exactly what to do with the story? (Other than being the same journal?)

Re:BBRC is a joke. (1)

hubie (108345) | about a year ago | (#44961791)

If it is true that they have a terrible peer review process, then I think it is very relevant to the story. They must have a terrible peer review process if the paper got published. Normally there would be several rounds of give and take between the paper authors and the journal editors and reviewers, which either wasn't done, or was done through some manner of communication such as using personal email accounts.

Re:BBRC is a joke. (1)

hubie (108345) | about a year ago | (#44961831)

Plus, if Spiegelman was fairly well known for this kind of research, the journal editors should have asked him or one of his colleagues to be one of the reviewers.

Re:BBRC is a joke. (1)

OneAhead (1495535) | about a year ago | (#44966345)

You're making a lot of assumptions there:
- as you pointed out yourself, the process takes time; Spiegelman might not have been fairly well-known for this kind of stuff at the time of submission
- even if Spiegelman was fairly well-known for this kind of research, there could easily be 3 other researchers equally qualified to be reviewers
- it is perfectly possible the authors requested to bar Spiegelman from being reviewer process because he's direct competition
- I know researchers who use their gmail account for everything. Add to that the low likelihood of something like this happening (ordinarily, the whole point of going through the agony of publishing a paper is to take credit for the research, which becomes somewhat problematic when using a pseudonym), and I can easily see the editor wasn't exactly worried about verifying the authors' identity. Editors as well as reviewers are typically more worried about the quality of the research...

Bottom line: the research was good, rendering the debate on the quality of the journal's peer-review process moot. This sounds like something that could have happened to any journal, terrible or otherwise. The interesting debate is not about the journal but about the perps. Who were they? People trying to hurt Spiegelman, or industry researchers who were accidentally on the same track and were trying to hurt their company? Or neither? Will they get caught? Will they get punished? What will the "lessons learned" be?

I deserve it! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44952615)

So, where do I pick up my Nobel Prize? I'll be the one in the Fawkes mask. -AC

You mean like with bitcoin? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44953447)

No one knows who the phantom author of the bitcoin paper really is.

More chilling than the extreme anticompetitiveness (1)

ffflala (793437) | about a year ago | (#44954469)

...of this stunt is how traceable it really has to be. (Taking the assumption that this was an act of sabotage as a given, that is.) I mean I'm sure the phantom authors were thorough enough to cover direct digital tracks, but the list of likely suspects here is going to be really, really small. I find it chilling that people accomplished enough to either develop this research OR steal the information from a competitor would be foolish enough to overlook the simple fact that they can't really easily, anonymously slip into a crowd when that crowd is so tiny to begin with.

The alternate explanations posited or that I could otherwise imagine certainly do seem to be comparatively bizarre and unlikely. The idea that a motive might have been to steal research/publication/academic thunder from interesting results to be a perfectly credible one, really. Current academic and journal models do indeed, perversely, tend to encourage self-interested behavior over behavior beneficial to the rest of humanity. It might be simply an inescapable consequence of the natural links between profit, power, research, and human nature.
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